Public meetings should ideally be places of discussion and cooperation between government and community. However, the Shockoe Bottom economic development plan meeting held Saturday, January 25th, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School was everything but. With most of the Council Districts having already completed their meetings, it seemed everyone, both residents and city officials, knew what to expect and entered the auditorium with predetermined attitudes of frustration. Even in the hallway, opinions were re-enforced as bumper stickers were quietly handed out with the now-infamous “No Baseball Stadium in Shockoe” slogan.
Presentations were heard from both the 6th and 7th District Councilwomen, Ellen F. Robertson and Cynthia I. Newbille, who seemed to scold the public attendees, warning the crowd to hold their questions until the end while simultaneously thanking them for their valued input.
Sylvester Turner, a representative from the Slave Trail Commission, spoke briefly and ineffectively. Never even removing his coat, he spoke in vague language offering a picture of vitality and unity for Shockoe Bottom – such that by the end of his contribution, it was unclear what opinion he actually held regarding the issue. In contrast, the comments directed to Turner were factual, poignant, and emotional. The usual questions were raised regarding the exact location of Lumpkin’s jail and other sites potentially affected by the stadium project’s construction. Turner stated that it was unknown what sites were in the footprint of the stadium. Many in the audience asked the question, if we don’t know what historic resources are present, isn’t it worth finding out before the opportunity is lost forever? When asked why city residents have not been involved in the Slave Trail Commission’s decision to support the project, Turner said that he believed the Commission members to be part of the community, therefore their input satisfies the need for public involvement.
Jack Berry of Venture Richmond offered an emotional lift for the meeting, giving a presentation focusing on the revitalization of downtown Richmond with images of smiling young people holding cups of coffee and enjoying folk music. This was offered as a contrast to rain soaked buildings and puddled streets, undoubtedly, to illustrate the city’s desired transition from an outdated industrial city to a vibrant millennial community. Berry offered several compliments to the city, saying that it was unlike any other place he had been, with a friendly community and beautiful architectural bones. The official plans and images for the site were presented by Berry, with no new information revealed, but with the same salesmanship experienced at past meetings. Photographs of the project site were overlaid with the location of the four bases to place the project in perspective. This method of presentation created a shrunken view of the project making the plan seem geographically small, when in reality the total plan spans several city blocks and streets, interrupting the city grid.
Berry expressed the need for more housing downtown, but due to the below grade nature of the Shockoe Valley and tendency for flooding there are special considerations that must be made in order to build apartments on the site. He stated there are three options for development in Shockoe: to tunnel Shockoe creek under the river, to create emergency evacuation bridges connecting to higher ground, or to build a baseball stadium. No other alternatives appear possible.
Chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall was present to explain the financial aspects of the project. He outlined the promises and contributions from bonds, developers, and the Richmond Squirrels that would ideally leave the city with little to no financial responsibility. Noticeably absent from these calculations was the funding for the Lumpkin’s jail site museum, which is reliant upon the promise of state funds and much public fundraising. This aspect of the plan is crucial for appeasing public uneasiness about building upon the historic sites – leaving it out of financial consideration seems unappreciative towards community sentiment. Also absent from this discussion was a description for the type and, more importantly, affordability of the proposed new housing.
When it was finally time for public comment, one of the first residents to speak asked, “I thought this was a community meeting, why have we been left only 15 minutes for our questions?” This didn’t stop those present from asking their questions, and they continued for another hour and a half.
When asked why the stadium could not be rebuilt at the present site on Boulevard with similar development of apartments, hotel, parking, and commercial space, Marshall explained that such a plan would not receive subsidy payments from developers and the baseball franchise and therefore would be dependent on city money. It was not explained, however, why similar payments and agreements could not be reached for potential boulevard development, or whether any attempt had been made to finance such a plan.
Several residents of the East End spoke passionately highlighting the emotion they felt connected to the area of the Slave Trail Walk and their anger at any development, while other citizens’ concerns focused more on the technical aspects of traffic and development. One came prepared with the Timmons Group traffic and parking study of Shockoe, asking both Councilwomen if they had read the document. Neither had. However, the city, came prepared for this opposition bringing in a city traffic engineer who stated there would be no adverse effect of this project on traffic within the city.
Many citizens spoke with passionate and sometimes aggravated tones while representatives from the city did their best to speak calmly and respond to the questions within the lengthy public comments.
There were a few citizens who spoke positively about the possibility of development in Shockoe. One woman even said that she enjoys attending baseball games and definitely feels that a new stadium is needed. Though, she added that she gets her game tickets for free, and would be unlikely to attend future games if she had to pay for them.
While it is easy to focus on the extreme opinions, positive or negative, the common emotion expressed throughout all comments was confusion. With sporadic and poorly publicized meetings, and little in the way of available literature, the public is left without a clear understanding of the Revitalize RVA plan and is feeling underappreciated and, frankly, bamboozled. One resident calmly expressed this confusion when she explained that it feels emotionally wrong to place a commercial entertainment facility on the site of such suffering. Instead she questioned why a park or community open space wouldn’t serve the same purpose with much less investment, providing a central focus for new apartment construction while simultaneously memorializing the history of the past and representing the spirit of the growing city.
Residents of Richmond are proud of their history, invested in their city, and desire to be a part of shaping its future. One citizen said it well in response to Berry’s description of the city and the proposed Shockoe development: “You say that Richmond has great bones, then I am left wondering why we are covering over ours in order to look like the rest of America.”
Written by Susanna Parmelee, Public Engagement Intern, PSG